Making history more than a ghost story

The lure of ghost stories and hidden tunnels is what tends to draw tourists to the Old Town section of Edinburgh, Scotland, but it’s in the real historical sites where the story comes alive. Crichton Easton is a former employee with Edinburgh’s Mercat Tours, the most popular and trusted historical interpretation and touring company in the city. He laughs at the transformation that he witnesses in tourists when moving from supposedly haunted sites, to ones where real people lived, worked, and died. “The ghosts elicit giggles,” he says, “but the real history gets the gasps, and ‘ooohs, and the proper interest.’”

courtesy: www.mercattours.com

Mercat is contracted by the city of Edinburgh to do all “official” tours in the Old Town and along the Royal Mile. The Old Town contains Reformation-era buildings still situated on a Medieval street plan, and the Royal Mile is a long stretch of road that serves as the central hub of the Old Town, running from Edinburgh Castle to the ruins of Holyrood Abbey. While the company’s most popular attraction is the evening Ghost Tour, Easton also gave tours and site interpretations along the Royal Mile during the day, and worked briefly as a site interpreter at various World War I sites in Belgium and France. The tour routes, Easton said, were strict and specific, having been written by the directors of the company. “The directors,” he added, “are all former Heads of History at schools in Edinburgh.” Guides aren’t required to go by a script, though, and are often encouraged to make their tours personal and distinctive.

 

a screen shot from the Mercat Tours website
a screen shot from the Mercat Tours website

 

Even in their advertisements, Mercat Tours boasts that all of their guides and site interpreters are university trained, having at least a BA in History or something similar. Easton received his BA in Honors History at the University of Stirling in 1992, his post-graduate diploma in Tourism and Hospitality Management from Napier University of Edinburgh in 1993, and a post-graduate certificate in Education with a distinction of History Teaching from Glasgow University in 2001. He says that his additional degrees more than prepared him for the job at Mercat, and even allowed him to rise through the ranks to interim manager of the Edinburgh branch of the company.

The company’s directors carefully research each site, and routes are often changed when new history or archaeological evidence is found. Interpreters also know to leave time for extra stops, as tourists always have questions or feedback that would invite further exploration of certain places across town. Inevitably, Easton added, tourists would want to know about things they had seen in films, or on TV. Dispelling those myths always felt like a job well done, though Mercat did eventually give in and create a tour of sites seen in the book/television series Outlander.

Easton loved his job with Mercat, relaying stories of giving tours to Barry Gibb (twice!), to the Russian Ambassador to Scotland, and to a NASA astronaut who was working on the tiles of the Space Shuttle. But he also understands the importance of making history relevant and exciting to those who might think otherwise. One has to imagine that in this company, making the history tours just as worthwhile as the ghost tours can be a challenge. But he says it’s not impossible. “Be confident in what you are talking about. Have a theatrical slant — once did a tour with 250 people on it — very hard work but worth it.”

History Career Post

 

The career path I selected was archivist, as I am fascinated by the preservation of historical records. An archivist is an individual in the field of history who is responsible for the preservation of historical records. They must also arrange these records, insure their descriptions are known, and provide access to anyone who needs to see them. Archivists’ work with records is a process from acquisition, creation, and protection. Archivists are skilled in appraising and cataloging records for permanent storage and retrieval. These people specialize in maintaining numerous records, either if they are still being acquired or just being preserved. Most archivists choose this career path after getting an undergraduate degree from college. The expert I interviewed, Layce Johnson, the Processing Archivist at the Idaho State Archives, said, “I did not take the most direct route to my current position as Processing Archivist for the Idaho State Archives. I realized my love of working with primary source material while a graduate student at King’s College London.” Lacey completed a Master’s in Biblical Studies and then moved to Idaho where she worked in the private sector. As a volunteer at the Idaho State Archives, she gained valuable experience and said, “When a support position opened up I applied for the position to get my foot in the door. I steadily worked hard and moved into different positions along the way.”  In 2015, she took the Academy of Certified Archivists exam and became a Certified Archivist.  Volunteering, such as Lacey described, as well as Internship opportunities can be pursued during undergraduate and graduate work and are an excellent way to become familiar to the staff. You can advance opportunities to work in the field of history or at historical sites by becoming involved in historical societies and attending association conferences. The wide variety of project types that archivists are known to work on include preserving historical records of all kinds, such as photographs, documents, and government records of a state or country and any collection of historical significance. Archivists work to carefully preserve data and documents so people, either in the field of history or other academic fields, as well as the public, can later obtain the information for a variety of reasons. For example, genealogical research has become a huge area of research by both individuals and corporations alike, which has prompted request for birth and death records as well as marriage certificates to establish familial connection. Besides other archivists, archivists tend to work with curators, museum technicians, museum staff, librarians, and conservators. When asked about the kind of people she works with, Layce replied, “The Idaho State Archives serves the citizens of Idaho as the official repository of permanent and historical records of the state. We serve a diverse community as well as national and international researchers. We serve everyone from retired genealogy researchers, local historians to law firms and legal researchers. People of a diverse socio-economic background utilize our resources.” The projects are as varied as the individuals who pursue this career path, but archivists are detail-oriented, patient, and passionate about history. When it comes to choosing a project to work on, archivists can either pursue individual projects, or the government entity or historical society or museum they work for chooses their projects. Layce described the focus of her job. “As the Processing Archivist I focus on processing projects. Processing is the act of arranging and describing archival materials while maintaining fundamental principles such as Original Order and Provenance. The final outcome is a finding aid, which is a tool for researchers to learn what the collection consists of and leads the researcher to accessing the material.” Sometimes a particular historical society or government employer decides the project for the archivist. Layce is lucky to have some autonomy to “prioritize projects as long as they fall under our agency’s mission and our annual goals.” She works in conjunction with the Administrator for the Archives to choose projects.  She said, “Processing projects are ongoing and part of my general function as a Processing Archivist.”

One of the current issues that I have noticed in the field of history would be the advancement of digital technology that has opened up many avenues for archival storage, exchange and retrieval.  Layce talked about current problems they face at the Archives. “Our current issues as a government records archives primarily involve funding, resources and advocacy. Throughout the archives profession we are now dealing with the electronic records issue. Many contemporary records are digitally born and require a higher level of monitoring to maintain digital preservation as technologies rapidly change and as equipment, file types and software evolves and some becomes obsolete. This is our new greatest challenge for long term preservation of information, storage and access.” Different archival traditions have been developed in close relationship with the history, court system, and cultures of particular countries or regions.

Encouraging and helpful, Layce answered my question regarding entry level applicants by replying, “Problem solving, critical thinking, attention to details, communication, general knowledge about archives. Often times we look for applicants who have previously volunteered or interned at an archives.” The skills that most entry-level applicants of the archives require are people who can work both on their own or as part of a team; they need to be individuals that can exercise research and writing skills very efficiently, pay close attention to every detail of data or materials, must be excellent problem solvers, and have a passion for history and historical preservation. Many archival positions require people who can work on databases, convert pictures and words into digital form, and work on electronic data-keeping such as websites and other social media, so having a background in working with computers and other electrical devices is invaluable. According to the website www.recruiter.com/salaries/archivists-salary, archivists make roughly about $32,000-$48,000 every year, depending on their starting position and level of responsibility. The salary widely depends on education and experience. Layce said there is a wide range state to state and, “it depends on the type of archives whether it is a corporate archives, academic, non-profit, religious, or city/county/state/federal government archives.” A position currently advertised with the University of Oregon for a Lead Processing Archivist, Special Collections and University Archives has a salary range of $55,000-$63,000 per year. The career (http://hr.oregon.edu/carers//). The government of a state usually fund the state archives, as well as entities like a state historical society and, in Idaho, the State Preservation office and museums. Layce’s response to funding was, “My position is funded by the State of Idaho, some positions are funded through earned income, but are classified differently.” Private companies also employ historians and archivists for positions at their businesses. It is typical for positions in history fields to be funded by the government, as the state history would be lost without money to fund protection of historical documents. With any business, the higher the education, the better when it comes to the job market. Master’s degrees in history are usually appropriate for entry level into the archives. For higher positions, experience of three to five years of experience will be needed. Master’s degrees in the required field are the proper key to gaining the right position, usually a degree in history, political science, library science or information technology. Layce believes that a “Master in Library and Information Science (MLIS) with an emphasis on Archives is the most marketable degree to have within the archives profession. However you can find ways into the field with a master of arts degree in a history related subject.” She said that the profession has become very competitive for even entry level positions.  She strongly suggested the MLIS degree stating that it, “opens more doors, because you can go the academic archives route. There is an longstanding and ongoing debate about archives vs history related degrees. There are pros and cons to having one degree over the other. Some archivists end up having one of each.” As Lacey suggested for people interested in an archivist career, study hard and obtain the best possible education. People in the field of history should become involved in historical societies and attend conferences to network. Be prepared for starting an entry-level position and working your way up as experience is gained, which is the path Lacey took in her career.  The job outlook for archivists, curators or museum staff was estimated at a 7% growth rate for the 2014-2024 projection, according to https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/curators-museum-technicians. Layce’s advice to people interested in history, “I would advise people to volunteer and intern at a variety of different types of institutions to get a feel for the profession and gain some real world working knowledge.” Her strongest advice was to research the profession and “understand current professional standards as well as the history of the profession.”  She also gave some excellent advice about what it is like working in an Archives.  She said, “Sometimes people think of archives as quiet places where they can retreat in the back and work with materials without interacting with the public or people. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.” That was actually a bit of a surprise to me as I did have that impression after having completed an internship at the Archives, but then I remembered that there were many staff members and they were assisting customers and other agencies while I was quietly working on projects.  Layce’s information was very helpful and informative in looking at the job of Archivist.

Interview With an Archivist

Dr. Cheryl Oestreicher has held many positions in her career but none she found as fulfilling as working as a library archivist. It was not her first choice–she did not attend library school until her late twenties, and only chose archival work halfway through her program–but little makes her happier than working with the general public to uncover pieces of the historical narrative buried in special collections. Dr. Oestreicher began her career in the archives excited about the collections she could preserve and has continued it because she is excited about the people who wish to work with them.

The Boise State Library Special Collections and Archives require several different kinds of work in order to function. Someone must seek out or accept collections for donation, which means that the archive must have a clear idea in mind of what kinds of collections they wish to keep and what to pass on. Space is always a limiting factor in an archive, particularly since the stacks where collections are stored generally require temperature and humidity regulation. Since an archive cannot house everything, someone has to judge whether the collection is worth keeping–a tricky prospect for an archivist. Next, someone must process the collection. This can be as simple as labeling folders or boxes or as intense as itemizing and describing each piece. Later that collection must be added to the catalog, as a collection is hardly useful if no one knows an archive has it. Additional work can include digitization, cross-referencing items with other collections, and interpreting the collection to create public history installations like interactive timelines or exhibits. Dr. Oestreicher has done it all.

Most if not all archivists require a masters or doctorate in one of the library sciences. Very few have any background in history, and while some archives build exhibits that is not their main focus. The majority of archives exist to serve a curatorial function, and the Boise State archive is not an exception. The archive works with a variety of different kinds of people, from faculty and students to amateur historians and curious members of the public. Dr. Oestreicher has also worked with researchers from the National Science Foundation and researchers from other countries who are interested in topics covered by the special collections the library owns. The Frank Church Papers are by far the most utilized collection, but many others have fueled important projects.

Many archives are funded by the institution they are attached to and accept donations to further expand their capabilities. Collections are often donated to the archive, though some actively seek out and purchase famous or desirable collections. Dr. Oestreicher and her team are lucky in that they have the ability to chose which collections or projects they would like to work with and are able to develop their public history installations from there. While a small exhibit in the windows of the library features some of the archive’s pieces, the primary interest of the archive is not to track how many people are stopping  by to look at them. The archive has also done a fair amount of digitization, either at the behest of an interested party or because the archive itself believes that the collections will be of interest to the public. Dr. Oestreicher’s favorite public history piece that has been produced in the last few years is the timeline of Boise State’s campus that features pictures of the old buildings and tidbits of the University’s past. The user response to this timeline has been overwhelmingly positive, and the archive plans to do more like it soon.

Dr. Oestreicher had some advice for those who wished to get involved with archives. So many people want to work for an archive because they believe they will be in a back room processing collections all day, and will not have to deal with the public. She freely admits that is what appealed to her the most when she was first choosing this career. However, she has found that even in her time spent processing collections for the Atlanta library she used to work for, she still had to spend a certain amount of time talking with the donors in order to properly label things. Over time, more and more of her job consisted of interacting with the public in some way. This interaction is now the most fulfilling part of her work in ways she never thought it would be. Being an archivist is not just about the ‘stuff;’ it is about the new knowledge gained from projects that utilize that ‘stuff.’

 

Participatory Museum

After reading The Participatory Museum, I learned about several different methods in museum approach. The first method of museum study is the differences between traditional and participatory institutions. A traditional institution focuses on the exhibits of the museum establishment to provide information and knowledge for guests, while the participatory institution is designed for “the institution to serve as a ‘platform’ that connects different users who act as content creators, distributors, consumers, critics, and collaborators.” (1) It insures different perspectives for the museum and its guests to experience what an institution has to offer, and utilize how to gather and process the data.   There are two main factors with these methods, as their opportunity for users to create original content for the museum is very low, and expressing one’s own opinion is natural, but many people are very shy about expressing their true feelings. There were other methods to discover in participation described in the following chapters, such as the styles of Phil Kaplan’s volleyball class. In his class, Kaplan focused on addressing everyone as separate beings, he was focused on assisting everyone, and provided lessons with which they could help one another. Another method of participation would be to provide audiences with an “audience-centered” introduction, by giving the audience an experience of a museum by exhibiting the material in the way the guests want to see or experience.  (2) Materials like maps or guided tours are not “audience-centered,” as they are controlled more by the institution, not by visitors. I personally would like to know how museums can make places more visitor controlled, if not by maps or exhibit information. “‘Pull content’ is a term educators use to designate information that learners actively seek or retrieve based on self-interest.” (3) I believe this tactic would be an excellent idea. It would be quite useful in helping visitors to seek information on their own in museums, and provide them with more, and in depth, information.

Many individuals believe that museums are not worth seeing because many people think that there is nothing more to see at a museum, other than what is currently there, especially if they have already visited. The more people that use an institution, the more popular it will become if they pass on good details to other individuals.  Our world is so widely communicative through social media, etc., that if people spread the news about certain exhibits, that would perhaps help museum attendance.  In the third chapter of the Participatory Museum, a new practice is described called the Network Effect. Numerous experts in academic studies believe this to be the supporting structure of many socializing methods. This method is described as follows: “1. Individuals have personalized interactions. They create content, make choices that generate data, or provide personal information in the form of profiles. 2. An internal algorithm makes connections among the individuals. That can mean sorting profiles by interests or types . . . 3. The network content is displayed or provided back to the individuals.” (4) A few exhibits in the world, including Near, an exhibit at the Hall of Science in New York is one example of the network effect. The real question is deciding when an object in a museum should be participatory. According to the book Participatory Museum, I have learned an object is participatory as follows:  “1. Desire for the input and involvement of outside participants. 2. Trust in participants’ abilities. 3. Responsiveness to participants’ actions and contributions.” (5) The difference in how a user can provide information is based on what he or she can provide, such as information on a form that they write down for providing to museum officials, or they can donate their own personal knowledge to be used in the museum.

The Participatory Museum, Chapter 1, Nina Simon.” (1)

The Participatory Museum, Chapter 2.” (2)

The Participatory Museum, Chapter 2.” (3)

The Participatory Museum, Chapter 3.” (4)

The Participatory Museum, Chapter 5.” (5)

Jill Gill – Idaho Black History Museum

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Idaho Black History Museum, photo by Alisha Graefe

The Idaho Black History Museum may seem a bit out of place in Idaho seeing as the population is only .8% Black. (Census) This museum is located in downtown Boise right next to the Boise Art Museum, the Idaho State Historical Museum, and the Boise Zoo. The museum which is housed in the historic St. Paul Baptist Church is in prime real estate in Boise which was more than likely a strategical move by the museum founders. On the surface, Idaho’s past doesn’t seem to have a rich African American story, but this museum proves otherwise. According to the website, the museum exists to “build bridges between cultures to explore issues that affect Americans of all cultures and ethnicity.” (IBHM.org About Us)

According to Dr. Jill Gill, former Board Member of the museum and history professor at Boise State University, it is a volunteer based museum. The IBHM has no paid professional staff. “Therefore, the board runs the museum. It creates the exhibits, and brings in traveling exhibits, solicits donors, rents the facility to other groups, manages the site, sells items for fund raising, and arranges for volunteers to open the museum for business.” Due to the volunteer-run system, the exhibits are mainly put together by amateurs without any formal curator training. This gives the museum a different feel than other museums in the surrounding area.

Just by walking into the museum, you can tell that it truly is a passion project by members of the community. Gill who has served on the board for many years has helped with events and spoken at some. She has worked on fundraisers, created exhibits, and even helped clean up the museum. Being a board member and volunteer means helping out with everything and truly being involved in every aspect of the museum. You can tell by the exhibits that there is a large amount of input and help from the community. The volunteers that are at the museum regularly give great direction and are extremely helpful. Last time I visited the museum, I only got to look at a couple of the exhibits because I was wrapped up in a great and informative conversation with one of the volunteers (who happened to be the grandson of the man who built the church). This all gives the museum a homegrown, comfortable feeling.

Gill spoke about the size of the museum and their goals that include expanding the donor and revenue base so they can hire part-time professional help. They also hope to bring in new traveling exhibits. They hope to gain more volunteers and to expand its outreach further across the state. “The IBHM has always supported human rights and been part of the Idaho human rights movement, which it will continue to do so via its educational mission.”

Gill describes how her interest in Black history led her to get involved with the museum back in 2002. She explained how the Boise State University history department has had a history of representation on the board and have “tried to be helpful in connecting university classes/programs/resources with the museum and vice versa.” Gill describes the success of the museum as simply the number of viewers as well as engagement of the audience. “Oftentimes classes of school kids come through, and success would be measured by indicators that visitors have learned something, or though of things in a new way as a result of the exhibits/programs.”

Visitors can currently visit the museum and see the large piece of artwork by Pablo Rodriguez depicting the journey of Black Americans throughout history called Slave to President.

 

Idaho State Archivist

As long as there is history, companies, government agencies, libraries, and museums archivists will always be needed to organize, store, preserve, hold accountable, and improve access to documents through improved technology. I interviewed Jim Riley of the Idaho State Archives to get a better understanding of what archivists do and the different skills needed to do the job.

Jim Riley originally went through the history program for both his undergraduate and graduate studies at Boise State and did an internship at the Idaho State Archives. Jim also worked with people out at the Idaho Military History Museum working on Spanish American War, which was his area of study for his Master’s thesis. Jim also worked on the Adjutant General’s collection at the Idaho State Archives working on getting information on active duty troops clear back from the Nez Perce War. Jim ended up getting a job with the Idaho State Archives due to his internship. Jim has helped in the digitizing of old photos at the archives and is currently working at the Idaho State Archives and teaching at Boise State in history.

The average work that Jim does at the archives is processing public record request for people, which he says takes half of his time, the other half is working on projects finding information for legislature for information needed on a piece of legislation or local projects when needed. The people that Jim works with on a regular basis varies depending on the project. Sometimes Jim works with legislature, local law enforcement, and the public. Jim can at times choose projects occasionally but most of his time is needed for requests or are assigned projects needed by the local community or legislature.

A history degree or a Master’s in History is needed for most entry level position. Jim says that if you are looking to work in most university libraries than you need a Master’s Degree in Library Information Science. Jim expected when he started that he would be doing a lot more in collections instead he is doing more in legislative work and public request but that it always changes and he finds interesting things when doing research or researching request for the public or legislature. The salary normally stays the same and is depends on the budget by the legislature and normally will increase cost of living each year so it can have set the rising price of insurance so in the end your salary stays the same. Jim says he makes, as a state archivist, $33,000 a year.

Positions in the archive field working for the state is funded by legislature and the state budget. Some states have better funding so more archivists can be hired. Job opportunities also vary in some places depending on specific fields. Jim says this is typical for most state jobs but can change when working for private companies. Jim mentioned that one archivist left and got a job at company, which would pay substantially more. Jim said that the education needed for entry-level and mid-level is at least as master’s degree. The specific degrees needed are history degree, degree in public administration, and library information science degree. The most favored degree would be the Library Information Science Degree, but it depends on what kind of work you want to do in archive field. In order to progress in into the upper levels of employment more education is needed. A PhD is a typical requirement when progressing into the upper levels of employment as an archivist.  In order to make more pay most archivist end up taking a test to get the Digital Archive Specialist Certificate and the Arrangement and Description Certificate. This also allows for more money and helps with getting new jobs or progressing in their current job. These certificates are similar to what an accountant would get in order to become a CPA.

I have talked with Jim prior to this interview and it always fascinates me all the different information and projects he works on at any given time. I have noticed that Jim’s demeanor changes when I ask him about his job and the excitement in his voice when he explains some of his current and past projects. Jim really enjoys his job and has been a huge influence on me, when it comes to archives. Best advice for getting a job in archives, is to get an internship because that is the best way to get a job and experience in the field. The majority of people that do internships get jobs with archives because they are already known and have experience working in that particular archive and staff already.

Jim Duran, Digital Archivist and Side Project Historian

In an ever-more digitizing society, the work of a digital archivist is growing.  I sat down with Jim Duran to discuss the job of a digital archivist and how the field is changing and what it takes to be a digital archivist.

Duran has worked in the Boise State University Special Collections since 2007, and been the Digital Archivist since 2015.  He began his career as a library assistant for the BSU Special Collections while working to obtain his undergraduate math degree.  He enjoyed working at the library, and his interest in history was peaked through classes and interactions with history professors in the Residential College housing program.  His choice to study history was further influenced by his interest in cause and effect, agency, social systems, and opportunities to teach people who are interested in history.  More specifically, with archives, Duran enjoyed organizing things and having the ability to save history from obscurity.  Duran decided to pursue a career in libraries, graduating from the Boise State Master of Arts, History program in 2013.  He is currently working on his Master in Library Science degree, a requirement for academic archive personnel.

Having been involved with the BSU Special Collections during his undergraduate career, Duran wanted to continue working there for a number of reasons.  First, as a Boise State alum, Duran liked the Boise State community, campus, and city of Boise.  Secondly, working for a smaller archive with fewer staff allowed for more freedom when exploring different aspects of archives.  Lastly, the location of Boise as a capital city offered opportunities to collect political papers and corresponding documentation, which could provide multiple perspectives on historic and current events.

As a digital archivist, Duran’s day is usually spent working with students, staff, and the public, providing access to materials, managing interns, and processing new donations.  Additionally, he digitizes audio/visual materials by converting obsolete formats to digital, facilitates duplications since materials cannot leave the area, and creating digital collections.  Since 2015, a major part of the job has been website development.  That entails creating websites for content management, which make existing digital collections accessible online.  The focus for such collections has primarily been University archives and regional papers from Southwest Idaho.

For those interested in history and archival careers, Duran offered up some sound advice.  In history, he advised that finding non-profit organizations to work with is a major advantage.  Many grants require non-profit involvement, so finding a non-profit that shares your passion for a certain subject increases your probability of obtaining a grant.  As historians, many times we are required to write with a specific client or audience in mind.  His advice is to practice writing for different audiences as much as possible.  In reference to archives, his advice was to volunteer and intern to gain experience.  As the field turns more and more digital, he also offered to consider learning a coding language.  For those interested in archival work, the standard for academic libraries is a Masters in Library Science, as they will most likely be teaching.  The standards for non-academic libraries are a little more relaxed.  Some helpful skills are knowledge in the certain styles of processing collections, computer guidelines in describing collections, and familiarity with systems that manage digital content.  Additionally, skills associated with negotiating with donors, attention to detail and organization, and an ability to relate what people are looking for with what is available are desired.  Duran further emphasizes an awareness that the work you perform is permanent and meant to last a long time.  One of the challenges that he faces regularly is that there are no standards for how to archive and preserve digital materials.  The policies for such practices are still being written for digital collections.

Since 2011 Duran has also been a side project historian, usually employed through the City of Boise Arts and History Department.  He enjoys the variety of the side projects and their ability to spice things up.  It was through this collaboration with the City of Boise Arts and History and with the Boise Public Library that Duran published a book about the history of the Central Bench.  The book was a success, provided history on a relatively unknown subject, and was a fun way to support the Central Bench neighborhood.  The book was so well-received, that the first printing of 1,000 copies was gone in three weeks.  As a side historian, Duran’s projects are almost always related to neighborhood associations and grant funded.  When on a project, he devotes about 10-20 hours a week to research, writing, interviewing people, and presenting his findings.

Central_Bench_History_Cover_8x1025_print

My favorite section of the interview was devoted to the projects that Duran is proudest of.  He mentioned his Central Bench History book, his Photo Services Negatives Collection, and his Master’s thesis.  The Photo Services Negatives Collection involved over half a million photos on two obsolete content management systems.  Duran was able to migrate data to access it and preserve the digital content.  This project is an example of why Duran likes working in archives.  He states that, “Archives can be very rewarding if you enjoy preserving history and helping people discover it”.  His Master’s thesis was focused on the Morrison-Knudsen construction company based in Boise, and its connection to Cold War era Afghanistan.  Duran discovered that not much research had been done on the subject, conducted interviews of past employees, and became the expert on Morrison-Knudsen.  He was contacted by the BBC, the Washington Post, and others to discuss the company.  Duran created a professional niche for himself and is particularly proud of his thesis for that.

In an age increasingly digitizing, the work of Jim Duran will not cease any time soon.  His interview shed light on the roles of archivists in preserving digital content, and what it takes to enter the field and be successful.

Central Bench History book by Jim Duran

The most special things in Special Collections

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As an undergraduate I embarked on a solo transcription and translation of a portion of Boise State University’s sixteenth century copy of Peter Comestor’s Historia Scholastica, a twelfth century university history textbook. In order to perform a proper textual comparison, I needed to procure another version of this text. My search led me to the University of Iowa Library Special Collections. After a thoroughly enjoyable exchange between myself and the curatorial staff I obtained digital representations of what I needed.
This experience had a real impact on me. I decided I needed to find out how one came to be in a position to be around old texts all the time.
For this purpose I contacted Amy H. Chen, Special Collections Instruction Librarian at the University of Iowa. I asked, “What path led you to your current position?”
She replied, “I obtained a PhD in English from Emory in 2013. During my time at Emory, I worked in the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL, now Rose Library). That experience allowed me to get a Council on Library and Information Research (CLIR) postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Alabama, where I worked from 2013-2015 as the coordinator of exhibitions, instruction, and online outreach. I then moved to the University of Iowa to serve as the Special Collections Instruction Librarian in June 2015. In October 2016, I became the interim English and American Literature librarian.”
Having no idea as to what a Special Collections librarian does, I asked, “What sort of projects do you work on?”
“I coordinate instruction for our department, which means managing the 250+ classes that book with us on an annual basis. I also do teach, but we all teach here at Iowa. On the side, I do things like develop games (#codexconquest and #markthegame on Twitter if you want to check it out), serve on local and national committees for both English and special collections, and conduct my own research. I publish in the fields of pedagogy and literary collection acquisition; the latter of which I am currently writing an academic book on.”
Intrigued by these opportunities, I asked, “Are you afforded autonomy to pick your own projects, or are projects generally assigned to you by other in your organization or elsewhere?”
“I create my own projects,” she stated, “aside from the general coordination of instruction.”
Knowing so little about the challenges that Special Collections librarians I asked, “What are the current issues in your field?”
“The role of PhDs in libraries, PhD job placement overall, increasing pedagogy in special collections to partner with DH and move beyond show and tells, information literacy standards (especially following the election!), moving toward multiple sessions per class rather than one shot classes, game development in higher education.”
I asked, “How is your position currently funded? Is this typical for positions in your field or organization?”
She answered, “I am salaried through my department, yes, this is normal. I am salaried as a Librarian II (will be a III in June 2017) but many are salaried on a non-librarian level.”
Hoping that she was as enamored with Historia Scholastica as I am, I asked, “Knowing that you prize everything in your care, is there one thing you prize above the others?” I was dismayed when she replied, “Maybe our Babylonian clay tablet, our oldest item in the collection. I also am partial to our medieval manuscripts on paper (especially rare), and the marker drawings of Kurt Vonnegut.”

While medieval text books, clay tablets, ink drawings, and the lot are special, and worthy of the title, it is my humble opinion the most special thing is Special Collections are the librarians charged with their protection.

Let’s Talk, A Conversation with Troy Reeves, Head, UW-Madison Oral History Program

Photo – Zoom, Model H4n Digital Voice Recorder

I originally met Mr. Reeves through an oral history class taught at the Nampa Public Library in February 2016, courtesy of the Idaho Humanities Council. The two-hour class introduced us to the work of an oral historian and was a wonderful starting point for those interested in oral history either as a hobby or a profession.

To begin it is worth noting some of Mr. Reeves’ bona fides. The following information is drawn from the University of Wisconsin-Madison staff directory. Mr. Reeves manages collecting and curating oral history recordings, as well as communicating and collaborating with interested individuals about the art and science of oral history in both Wisconsin and Idaho. He is responsible for twenty oral history projects in both states covering such topics as cultural, political, and environmental history. He has been published in such journals as the Western Historical Quarterly, the Public Historian and the Oral History Review. He is also the managing editor of the Oral History Review overseeing day-to-day operations, including its social media initiative. He also works with the editorial team to add multimedia (both audio and audio/visual) content into the journal’s articles.  Finally, Reeves has held various leadership roles in the national Oral History Association.

Mr. Reeves near twenty-year career began with a part-time, six-month project for the City of Boise in 1997. From 1999 until 2007 he served as Idaho State Oral Historian, Idaho State Historical Society (ISHS). He left that position to become the head of the oral history program at the General Library System at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which encompasses forty libraries on campus.

Mr. Reeves’ educational path typifies oral historians. He received a Bachelor of Arts, History from Idaho State University and a Masters of Arts, History from Utah State University.  In both programs he selected projects that allowed him to do oral interviews in conjunction with other research he was conducting. Reeves stated that the few full-time jobs in oral history require at least a master’s degree, typically in history, folklore, library sciences, or journalism. Recently Columbia University began offering an Oral History Master of Arts.

Interpersonal skills are of paramount importance, being a good if not a great listener. He quoted a friend, Sarah White, who says, “Being a good listener requires not only the ear, but the brain and sometimes the heart.” Being a good researcher is essential so you know the person or people you are interviewing and the topic being discussed. Finally, perseverance is vital. People will back out of interviews leaving you stranded. Finding funds for different projects is frustrating. Knowing you have a good idea and the interest in the topic is not enough, it takes perseverance to get the project done.

When asked about salary, Mr. Reeves chuckled and said, “In the humanities there is never a poverty of ideas, only a poverty of everything else.”  As the State Historian for the Idaho State Historical Society his starting wage was $13.50.  No oral historian positions were found on National Council of Public History jobs board, however other entry level jobs on the site started at $15-$19.

“Oral history is what I do and who I am,” said Reeves.  His position is funded by the library to promote oral history on the campus, especially focusing on capturing the history of the university. His projects fall into two “buckets,” campus life stories and project or topic-based oral histories.  As an example of the first he cited a recent interview conducted with a wildlife biologist who talked about his work and the history of the university over the last nearly forty years. Reeves would like to do more such interviews, but as a one-person operation he typically can only do a few each year.

Front page of Wisconsin State Journal Oct 67 Riots
In 1967, University of Wisconsin students and police clashed when an anti-war protest – Pinterest

A project or topic-based project can be found in the interviews he is conducting around the 2011 protests which occurred at the state capital and on campus regarding changes Governor Scott Walker and the Wisconsin legislature were trying to implement. Since summer of 2011 he has been interviewing graduate students and some faculty and staff who were deeply involved in those protests. Another hot period for protests on campus occurred between October 1967, when there was an anti-war riot on campus, and August 1970 when there was a bombing on campus. These interviews continue with people who were actually on campus at that time.

Mr. Reeves also does off-campus work for the Wisconsin State Historical Society. He does training and workshops for them around Wisconsin, at their annual meeting and out of state such as the one in Nampa. He also works with different people who aren’t paid historians but who do oral history work ancillary to their jobs. Finally, he works closely with the full-time oral historian archivist at the vets’ museum. All of this exemplifies the campus ethos to get outside of campus and help others.

“Oral History Now and Tomorrow” was the topic of a panel discussion at the 50th Anniversary conference of the Oral History Association. Some current issues are:

  • Now that you can put digital audio online, should you? What are the ethics of doing so?
  • In an organization that prides itself on being egalitarian, who gets left out when there is a focus on degrees and professional development?
  • Oral history in crisis or contemporary settings, when is it okay to start doing oral histories?
  • Are there differences in the way a feminist may conduct an oral history project as opposed to someone not imbued with feminist history or feminist studies.

The oral historian techniques and methodologies should be in every historians’ toolkit.  Hearing and not just reading the words of those who witness history provides a bonus of information that may be otherwise missed by any student of history.

Interview with Kathleen Durfee, Manager of the Coeur d’Alene Old Mission State Park

Old-Mission

My interview was with Kathleen Durfee, the park manager of the Coeur d’Alene Old Mission State Park. Kathleen has worked for the Idaho Parks and Recreation Department since 1990 when after getting her bachelor’s degree she took a summer job while deciding whether to enter Master’s school. She so thoroughly enjoyed her experience that she decided to stay on with the Parks Department and has remained there ever since. Although there have been ups and downs in her career, including having her position completely removed in 2008 leaving her scrambling for another, her experience with the Parks Department has allowed her to be apportion to four different parks throughout Idaho.

I found her description of the Coeur d’Alene Old Mission Park absolutely fascinating. They have the oldest standing building in Idaho, the Mission of the Sacred Heart erected between 1850 and 1853, as well as 5000 ft2 museum that houses around $10 million in artifacts at any given time.[1] Her job as manager includes the upkeep of both of these buildings, especially the mission itself which requires experts and the interaction of multiple historically based groups to be worked on, as well as the entirety of the parks other amenities including picnic areas, restrooms, a gift shop, and much more. Another one of these duties includes the maintenance of the trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, a 72 mile trail that was established by a joint venture between the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, Union Pacific Railroad, the U. S. Government, and the State of Idaho.[2] She also organizes a fourth grade fieldtrip for all the children in three towns and eight cities in the area. For Kathleen, there is no such thing as a normal day.

Due to the nature of the park and the area in which it is run, Kathleen deals with a myriad of local, state, and federal organizations. Not only does she deal with her own organization, the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, on many of her projects, she also deals regularly with the Idaho Panhandle National Forest service, the Coeur d’Alene tribe, Heritage Trust, the Environmental protection agency, the University of Idaho, and even on occasion the Smithsonian Museum as well as other large influential museums to keep a good rotation of the exhibits. She had recently returned to the Smithsonian a full dress of “Buffalo” Bill Cody that she had on exhibit for a few months. Working with such a large number of groups, each with different ideas and ideals, means that Kathleen is remains a busy woman year around.

When faced with the issue of hiring new help Kathleen repeatedly stated that the number on attribute that she looks for is a good hard work ethic. Both in her seasonal employees and the park rangers that she hires, Kathleen said, ” We can teach them almost anything except the willingness to work hard.”[3]Above and beyond work ethic, she also looks for specialized skills that are needed from time to time around the park, such as ability to work with computers, communication skills, and mechanical, or other maintenance/restoration skills. With regard to advancement in the field, education is generally considered a bonus but much of the deciding factor is hard work and following of the training goals program that each employee is given with their career goals in mind.

One of the largest problems facing the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation is funding. Kathleen herself, after her position was eliminated in 2008 by budget cuts, has been worried for her job and became the manager of the Coeur d’Alene Old Mission Park in order to retain her employment status with the department. She said that by cobbling together money from the parks passes, a $1 charge to fourth grade students, viewing fees, and expansion of the gift shop, the state has managed to keep most of the parks open and a majority of the positions active even through a 2008 budget cut from nearly $14 million to a measly $1.4 million a year. This idea of doing more with less has become a motto of sorts for the department in recent years.

The interview with Kathleen allowed me to enter a world I have much interest in but, until recently, understood very little about. The history of and prospects of future budget cuts, the massive number of organizations, and astonishing value of the artifacts and land at their disposal was truly eye opening. At the end of the interview Kathleen stated,” No one joins the Department of Parks and Recreation to get rich, but they do join to live a richer lifestyle.”[4]

[1] “Coeur d’Alene’s Old Mission,” Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, accessed Feb 9, 2017, https://parksandrecreation.idaho.gov/parks/coeur-d-alenes-old-mission.

[2] “The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes,” Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, accessed Feb 9, 2017, https://parksandrecreation.idaho.gov/parks/trail-coeur-d-alenes.

[3] Kathleen Durfee (Manager of Coeur d’Alene Old Mission State Park) in discussion with Eric Overzet, February 2017.

[4] Ibid.